Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 2)


As promised earlier, I'm posting a few pre-Tales items designed to prime the collective pumps of those headed for New Orleans this July. But even if you aren't attending the boozapalooza known as Tales of the Cocktail,you still might want to stop here now and then in the weeks beforehand to soak up some random hooch-centric knowledge.

This salvo comes courtesy of Paul Clarke, whose name is familiar to cocktail enthusiasts of all stripes. In addition to writing about cocktails & spirits for Imbibe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and SeriousEats.com, he is also considered the godfather of cocktail blogging, having documented his love of adult beverages at his site The Cocktail Chronicles since 2005.

At Tales of the Cocktail this year, Paul will be presenting the seminar "As American as Apple Brandy", and he was kind enough to let me fling a handful of questions at him regarding this little-known but historically significant spirit.

Are apple brandy and applejack the same thing? I often see the terms used interchangeably.

Historically, applejack and apple brandy were pretty much the same thing. The term "applejack" was slang, a word usually hung on rougher, coarser versions of the spirit (especially in the early days, when techniques like freeze distillation were sometimes employed), and until very recently, brandy distillers typically bristled at the use of "applejack" to describe their product. The term mostly lost its sting after Prohibition, when there were still several brands around (this ended in the 1950s, when Laird's became the only producer in the U.S.), and in the 1970s, Laird's reformulated their applejack from a straight apple brandy into a blend with neutral spirits, with a little apple wine added to the blend.

Do you remember where you first encountered apple brandy?

When I first started exploring the classic-cocktail landscape, I came across references to the Jack Rose, one of the most basic and still engaging applejack cocktails in creation. I'd just assumed that applejack was extinct along with Old Tom gin and other once-common bar ingredients, but with a little searching I found applejack in a Seattle liquor store; today, many Jack Roses later, I still find American apple brandy one of the most interesting and engaging spirits in the bar.

How popular was apple brandy in the early days of the US?

Keep in mind that apple brandy is simply distilled cider, and there were stretches during the Colonial era and well into the 19th century when cider was the most widely consumed beverage in America. So, apple brandy was huge -- it was easy to produce locally (which was especially helpful on the frontier, where shipments of rum -- the other important spirit of the colonial era -- could be relatively expensive and hard to find), and it predated the advent of Bourbon and possibly even the birth of American rye whiskey. Laird's has been distilling apple brandy since 1698, and in the 1830s, there were around 400 distillers of applejack in New Jersey alone. That was bigtime booze for the era.

It's my understanding that apple brandy was traditionally made in the northeastern US. Was/is it made in other parts of the country?

New Jersey is American apple brandy's ancestral homeland, and Laird's is still based there today (though since suburban sprawl long ago displaced the state's orchards, their brandy is now distilled in Virginia), but today there's apple brandy being made pretty much wherever apples are grown. Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon has been making apple brandy for years, and St. George Spirits and Germain Robin in California make exquisite apple brandies. There are also apple brandies made in Michigan, Indiana and Connecticut, and I hope that soon we'll be able to purchase apple brandy made in my home state of Washington.

The apple brandies I've tasted seem to have a whiskey-like character. Are there any whiskey-based cocktails that work well when apple brandy is substituted?

There's a reason applejack is sometimes referred to as "apple whiskey." American apple brandy has the woody bite that you find in Bourbon & rye, along with a mellow richness that can really make the other ingredients in a cocktail come together. I'd suggest almost every whiskey-based cocktail would work well with apple brandy, and if you mix equal parts of the two? Damn. Case in point: the Star Cocktail, which is simply an apple-brandy Manhattan (make it with orange bitters and you've got a Marconi Wireless), and the Diamondback, which is rye whiskey, apple brandy and Chartreuse. Also, there's the American Trilogy, a more contemporary drink which is rye whiskey, apple brandy and orange bitters. And apple brandy even mixes well with other spirits, such as in the Pink Lady, in which it stars with gin, lending a deeper, richer backbone to the drink.

What are some of the differences between American apple brandy and other related products like Calvados?

While there are similarities between Calvados and American apple brandy, the differences are big enough to think about them as distinct spirits. Calvados producers are limited to using certain types of apples (typically the tarter styles used for cider), but American producers can use any style of apple, and often use sweeter varieties more commonly thought of as table apples (an example is the apple brandy from Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon, which is made entirely from Golden Delicious apples). Laird's, the largest producer, ages their brandy in used bourbon barrels, whereas Calvados producers use various styles of oak barrels, which results in a different finished product. American apple brandies are also usually bottled much younger than Calvados (though there are exceptions among some older American brandies), which results in a very different character in the glass. There are other differences, but this should give you an idea of how similar, yet different, these styles of apple brandy can be.

Has the renewed interest in cocktails over the past few years helped apple brandy become more commonplace? Is it possible to find it in bars these days?

The cocktail renaissance has helped almost all spirits (with the possible exception of vodka), and apple brandy has definitely benefited. Not only can you find applejack and Laird's bonded apple brandy in many (if not most) craft-cocktail bars, but there's been a slow but steady increase in the number of startup distillers trying their hand at apple brandy. The best years for American apple brandy may be before us.

"As American as Apple Brandy" happens from 1:00 to 2:30 pm, July 23 in the Grand Ballroom South at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Go here to purchase tickets.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tales of The Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 1)


Thanks to a variety of planets aligning, I'll be attending Tales of the Cocktail this July, and as in previous years I'll be doing my level best to soak up as much booze-centric information as possible. If you're one of the seven people who read this blog regularly, you may remember my wrap-up from the first year I went to Tales, and also some observations from my second time around. I'll be endeavoring to do likewise again in a couple of months' time.

However, this year I'll be doing things a bit differently. Yes, I'll still be shambling around like a slack-jawed ape trying vainly to process the sensory orgy that is a 5-day hoochfest placed smack in the middle of downtown New Orleans. But this time I'm coming armed with three things I didn't have back in '09: A laptop computer, a Facebook account and a Twitter account.

See, the goal for me this time is to send back a few dispatches from the field in a somewhat timely fashion, rather than relying on my faulty memory and a stack of smeared handwritten notes to provide a post-mortem. Provided my dubious technological skill set doesn't fail me, I intend to report in as faithfully as possible throughout the event.

I'll also be doing a handful of posts and updates in the weeks leading up to Tales, so if you're the kind of person who enjoys stuff like sneak previews and movie trailers, then you should probably go wherever they have those, because here I'm just going to be discussing seminars with names like "A Critical Design Analysis Of The Hawthorne Strainer (With Emphasis On Metal Fatigue And Fluid Dynamics)" and "The Solera Method: A Noble Tradition...Or Just Plain Cheatin'?"

But if that kind of thing sounds up your alley, then you can periodically check in here, and also look for @DoctorBamboo on Twitter. If Facebook is your thing, then go here. Of course the best option is to actually come to New Orleans and meet me for a drink. We'll put it on Morgenthaler's tab.